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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Rule 3 - In praxeology: insist on the potential for politics

So far, we have presented Onuf’s rules on “thinking rule(s)” and “thinking rule(s)” as a scholarly engagement with thinkers in different branches of theory The rules so far read much as an American “Go West” translated into an academic “Go Read and Reflect.” While this is no doubt a core part of Onuf’s rules - and his personal character, not particularly attracted by the competitive recognition games in academia or public punditry - it leaves out something which we believe to be absolutely essential: the insistence throughout Onuf’s work that the door to politics must be left open. Through all the stern prose and the often harsh views expressed about the arguments of other thinkers, whether well-established or not,7 Onuf also seems to invite his readers (just as he does his students and friends) to remember that ultimately all the scholarly reading and reflection is profoundly inspired by, and serves to keep a door open to, politics. As Ian Hacking once put it, Constructivism is about the social world, where things are not given by God or nature, but could have been otherwise (Hacking 1999). Precisely because Constructivism avoids closures, theoretical and practical, there is a normative claim in Onuf that the work of a scholar cannot and should not be expected to produce definitive positions and closed systems. He completes a logical step from the importance of practices in social theory to the central place and ever-changing potential of politics. On the one hand, Onuf’s focus on rule leads him to emphasize relations of domination; on the other, his insistence on rules in practice prompts a vision of change. Probing this openness is what we would term Onuf’s third rule for theorizing about world politics.

Onuf’s insistence on openness is not some kind of naively conceived “everything is possible” with a teleology leading to a happy end (“in the last resort”). In fact, despite his insistence on rules, he is not mainly concerned with norms as used in IR theory, even though the two terms are often confused; he is not really close to norm-Constructivism. With his focus on rules comes an awareness of rule as domination, indeed exploitation. Hence, politics is to be thought within these confines and also as dynamically contributing to it. As he insists:

In my view, rule is exploitative. If there are three categories of rule, then there are three forms of exploitation. If rule is inevitable - a position I think follows logically from the logic of rules and rule - then so is exploitation. The mitigation of exploitation in one form compels or promotes its presence in some other form . . . there is no solution to the human reality of exploitation. Even in the absence of a solution, we must call exploitation what it is, in all the ways that it is what it is.

(Onuf 1989b, 288)

As the end of this quotation underscores, Onuf insists on defending the scope for politics, the space of possibilities and of agency and especially on the responsibility of scholars to do precisely this. The pessimism of Onuf’s intellect time and again seems tempered if not conquered by the optimism of his will. One might therefore say that Onuf advocates something akin to what Pierre Bourdieu termed a “Realpo- litik of Reason” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999, 51) - that is, a politics that sees the deontic power of language and discourses clearly and therefore is painfully aware of the importance of defending the space for politics by reflexively relating to them. In fact, Onuf makes the priority of this kind of politics exceedingly clear when he discusses the importance of focusing attention precisely on the more profoundly anchored “rules”, since these offer the greatest scope for a politics of change. As he puts it:

Some rules are functionally specialized as rules of recognition and change. When linked in a discrete structure, or constitution, these rules, I suggested earlier, give societies their identity and direction. They do so by regulating processes through which other rules are known and changed. By focusing on these processes, constructivism offers a means for classifying the kinds of change for which theorizing is in order.

(Onuf 1994, 19)

Onuf’s Constructivist disposition to openness made him concerned that structuralist and/or functionalist approaches may prematurely close the scope for politics by deriving overly deterministic outcomes. He therefore insists time and again that although he is not blind to the significance of rule and its reproduction, he sees it as necessarily also related to rules and therefore also to a possibility of agency and choice. Thus, when discussing the scope for choice in political action, Onuf underlines that “if constructivism means, as I think it must, that the individual actively participates in the construction of her own social reality, then choices are never just internally created, any more than they are just internalized” (Onuf 1989b, 114). Analogously, when Onuf wishes to demarcate his position from those at the opposite end of the academic spectrum - the poststructuralists - he also makes retaining a scope for politics stand at the heart of that demarcation. In Onuf’s view poststructuralists are prone to closing down the scope for progressive, realistic politics by rendering the world too fleeting, ungraspable and hence impossible to meaningfully engage, or simply beyond redemption (Onuf 1998, 169).

In fact, one could argue that it is Onuf’s insistence on the centrality of rule as order/domination that pushes him to look at rules for understanding change. Indeed, he has no doubt that order is a problem, as is “order talk”. As he explains:

Order is a metaphor, a figure of speech, a disguise. It is constituted by performative speech, a propositional content for such speech. One asserts that “order” stands for, or accounts as, the way the world is, can be, should be, will be.

(Onuf 1989b, 155)

Even more strongly, he rejects the idea that order is somehow a natural given, an equilibrium of sorts, towards which social relations may converge. Instead, orders arise because they “benefit those whose arrangements they are” with the implication that “the problem of order becomes the problem of privilege” (158-159). Questioning order is therefore key to his work. Everyone (and not only academics) is implicated in it and has the possibility of questioning and transforming order. Here, Onuf is driven by the “sense that people are capable of thinking about themselves and their relations as a whole, formulating their ideas by reference to common purpose, and joining together, level by level, to put some order into their affairs” (Onuf 2002, 227-228). Yet, it falls to academics and intellectuals more generally to name exploitation for “what it is, in all the way it is what it is,” as mentioned above.

Onuf’s reaction to the publication of Marti Koskenniemi’s (2006 [1989]) From Apology to Utopia - a central reference point in critical legal studies - can be read in this light. He disagrees with Koskenniemi’s presentation of “the structure of legal argument” as characterized by the tension between a liberal (utopian) and a realist (apologetic) position and the dynamic that this tension engenders. As should be clear from the first section above, Onuf cannot but hold that Koskenniemi misunderstands the core terms (liberal and realist) and hence also their relationship. For Onuf the realist is the stronger liberal and Koskenniemi’s structuring opposition is therefore bound to be not only mistaken but misleading. However, while this does indeed provide plenty of ammunition for critique, Onuf’s main irritation with Koskenniemi is that he does not pick up or even begin to engage with the question of alternatives to the current regime of international law. As he complains:

Koskenniemi could profitably have proceeded with a more extensive rendition of his program, perhaps suggesting a theoretical alternative to liberalism specifically tailored to the international lawyer’s technical competence and argumentative needs. Instead, he applies his critical capacities to a series of overlapping doctrinal foci - sovereignty, sources, custom and world order.

(Onuf 1990, 774)

Along similar lines, although in more friendly terms, Onuf takes David Kennedy’s equally influential International Legal Structure (Kennedy 1987) to task for not sufficiently engaging with the political alternatives to Liberalism, suggesting that “herein lies the material for Kennedy to write a fitting conclusion to his project. How can one be a playful postmodern in a deadly serious world? What is a properly postmodern response to Hobbesian fear?” (Onuf 1989a, 640).

Onuf’s own position on the potential for politics and change became increasingly optimistic or, perhaps more correctly, informed by a refusal to succumb to resignation, both facile and counterproductive, for any Constructivist aware of self-fulfilling effects. In his later works, Onuf highlights the productive and promising prospects opened up by the growth of functional regimes and more generally the emergence of international politics running across rather than through the state system. According to him, the “the sense of public duty so many of those experts [engaged in various functional regimes] exhibit suggests a renewal of Republicanism. So, too, does the increasing tolerance for intervention in affairs once thought to be the state’s alone” (Onuf 1998, 162). Along similar lines, Onuf argued that we might see a world in which the pertinence of the center-periphery distinction might decline. As politics was becoming increasingly functionally differentiated and hence centered on status (rather than geography), he suggested that we might be witnessing the emergence of a kind of theorization of (no longer) international relations “suiting the social relations of the late modern world [which] abandons center and periphery as organizing concepts, even as it draws attention to the asymmetrical social relations of this or any world” (Onuf2013, 197). The implications of this position for IR are of course far reaching. Not only does it entail that the conventional view on how academia works has to be revisited, or, as Onuf put it, “it no longer makes sense to think of scholars ‘from the center’ as producers of theories and scholars ‘from the periphery’ as consumers” (Onuf 2013, 197). It also entails that the very subject Onuf dedicated most of his life to might become irrelevant to the point of disappearing. “Even if International Relations will continue to have a modest vocation as the nation’s constitutive guardian, we will have lost a subject called international relations that we can call our own” (Onuf 2013, 211). Onuf takes a glimpse of the future of politics where international relations allegedly anchored in an anarchy problematique might indeed be dissolving as people are remaking the rules and rule of their own worlds.

While many people grow grumpier with time, Onuf does not; and this despite his insistence on the omnipresence of hierarchies, exploitation, and injustices. Instead, Onuf appears increasingly prone to describing the changes that harbor solutions to the problems of the liberal political order that he had so pertinently criticized - without going beyond this description. In this, Onuf follows his own maxims. He closes World of our Making with a Wittgenstein quotation:

The difficulty is not that of finding the solution but rather of recognizing as the solution something that looks as if it were only preliminary to it . . . the solution of the difficulty is a description, if we give it the right place in our considerations. If we dwell upon it, and do not try to get beyond it. The difficulty here is: to stop.

(Onuf 1989b, 289)

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